A New Muslim Feminism?

A reflection on the opening of an inclusive liberal mosque in Berlin and its context.
By Fridolin freudenfett (Peter Kuley) (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In Berlin, the opening of a new and most unusual mosque, the Ibn Rushd-Goethe mosque, has incited both support and outrage. What makes this mosque special is that both men and women pray together. This mixed mosque was founded and is led by the female imam and self-proclaimed Muslim feminist, Seyran Ateş.

An inclusive Mosque

This revolutionary mosque is inclusive in the most open sense of the word. In the mosque Sunni, Shia and other Muslims come to pray together. This is, especially in conflict-ridden times like these, in itself a revolutionary act. Furthermore, the mosque prohibits full-face veils as Burqas or Niqabs to be worn inside of it, both for security reasons and because, as Ateş stated in an interview with the German newspaper Der Spiegel, “it is our belief that full-face veils have nothing to do with religion, but rather are a political statement”. Women pray side by side with men

Women pray side by side with men and as if all this wasn’t enough revolutionary, the mosque is also inclusive to the LGBT+ community. This is definitely the first mosque in Germany to do so, and one of the first in Europe as well as the entire world.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the opening has caused a certain outrage among more conservative imams and in the Muslim community. Since lawyer, women’s right activist and single mother Ateş opened the mosque on June 16, 2017, it has been fiercely criticised both in Germany and, even more so, in Turkey.

Outrage and Threats

In Egypt, a fatwa has been declared against the mosque as an attack against Islam. Following the opening, Ateş had to get police protection, as she has since received about a hundred death threats.

However, she says that she sees this as the only way to achieve change: to open a space, where every question can be asked. She moved from Turkey to Germany as a child, and has been condemning the oppression of women in some Muslim communities, and called for liberal values to be upheld.

She is known for having called for a sexual revolution in Islam. In 2009, her book Islam needs a sexual revolution was scheduled for publication, but has been delayed because of continuous threats she has been receiving. Especially her views, highly critical of an immigrant Muslim society that is often more conservative than its counterpart in Turkey, have put her at risk. In January 2008, she stated on National Public Radio, that she was in hiding and would not be working on Muslim women’s behalf publicly (including in court) due to the threats she has been receiving.

Concerning her interpretation of Islam, Seyran Ateş stated that “we need a historical-critical exegesis of the Quran”, and that “a scripture from the 7th century, one may not and cannot take literally. We stand for a reading of the Quran which is oriented to mercifulness, love of God and most of all to peace”.

Following the opening, the liberal Muslim community in Germany has faced an immense conservative backlash and intimidations of all kinds. The mosque has asked for tolerance and respect with regard to their reading of the Quran.

Muslim feminism in the world

However revolutionary and controversial, this mosque’s opening is not a singular event, but rather part of a growing tendency, if not part of a movement: a movement of Muslim feminism and inclusivity.

In France, Ludovic-Mohamed Zahed, founder of Homosexuals Musulmans 2 France (HM2F), an association for gay and lesbian Muslims in France, and gay Islamic scholar, has worked exactly with these motives of inclusiveness and tolerance, since opening his mosque after that no imam in France would bury a Muslim transsexual in 2012. He’s particularly known for stressing that there’s no verse in the Quran that condemns homosexuality, while in Arab literature he found an array of homoerotic poems. He, too, faced an incredible backlash from Islamic scholars and Muslim institutions, such as the Paris Grand Mosque. In 2014, he rebelliously married a lesbian couple in Sweden.

In the meantime, a British movement called the Inclusive Mosque Initiative, which, too, calls for inclusivity and tolerance in Islam, has been attracting more and more attention. Its goal is to overcome the linguistic, sectarian, political and ethnic lines so present between and within Muslim communities.

In the U.S., an even more vibrant and fruitful debate within the Muslim community is going on with personas like Mona Eltahawy, Leila Ahmed, and Saba Mahmood pushing for a Muslim feminism and a critical analysis of gender issues in Islam forward. Just like Seyran Ateş, the journalist and women’s rights activist Eltahawy calls for a sexual revolution in Islam in her writings, where she incessantly addresses women’s rights issues in Muslim communities. She’s also part of a Muslim feminist movement, the Musawah movement, which calls itself a “global movement for equality and justice in the Muslim family, which advances human rights for women in Muslim contexts, in both their public and private lives”.

Westernizing Islam?

The term “global” in this self-description is, however, questionable, as the movement, just as the practice of inclusive mosques and prayers, all reside in Western countries – Europe and the U.S. This positioning has caused these movements and practices the accusation of trying to “westernize” Islam, or of being under Western influence. The first inclusive Muslim prayer was also lead in the States, by Amina Wadud, an Islamic scholar and university professor.

The question of being a Muslim woman, especially a veiled Muslim woman, in what we call “the West” is a really complex issue. Especially the media discourse about the veil is often marked as the symbol of Islam’s backwardness and, therefore, the necessity to remove the veil in order to bring civilisation, as Saba Mahmood pointed out in an interview. That is also why Ateş’ prohibition on full veiling can be problematically seen as related to this Orientalist discourse in Western societies.

So, even within the Muslim feminism (in the West) the questions and issues are complex and at times problematic, especially when essentialisms are used in the reasoning. However, it is important to point out that feminist thought and gender equality concern are not a new tendency in an Arab Islamic context, going back as far as to the prophet’s wife Khadija, who was a divorcee, entrepreneur, and it was her who proposed to him. Over the centuries, women’s issues and the question of equality have been present in the more progressive Islamic discourse. While feminism is often mistaken for a Western construct, modern Muslim feminist movements have been active in Arab Islamic countries since the 19th century.

This contemporary Muslim feminist dialogue can be considered a reaction to the common essentializing and Islamophobic discourse in Western media and society that associates Islam with both terrorism and the oppression of women. It is what these and similar initiatives react to and which they try to subvert.

In this sense, they are very much part of the so-called Western socio-political context.

Magdalena Mach

Magdalena is a queer feminist currently doing her MA's in Gender, Violence and Conflict at Sussex Universityin Brighton, UK. For the past 4 years she was based mainly in Tunisia, where she was working in projects as writer, translator or volunteer, and studying. Her research and work focus has been circling around the themes of discrimination of and state violence against minorities, policing of queer spaces and bodies, and intersectional feminism. In her free time, she experiments with mixing of sounds.
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